A Man Who Refused to Judge: Carlo Maria Giulini

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This is a story about a musician, but not about music. It is about you and me and especially all the loud voices in today’s world who not only claim to know what is right and what is wrong, but who is right and who is wrong. Most particularly, it is about a great man who had every right to judge someone else, but chose not to. I’m talking about the famous Italian conductor of symphony and opera, Carlo Maria Giulini.

Who was Giulini and what gave him that right? Born in 1914, Carlo Maria Giulini would become the Music Director of La Scala, Milan; Principal Guest Conductor of the Chicago Symphony (1969-1973) and the Music Director of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (1973-1976). But it was much earlier in Rome that he played as an orchestral violist under the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954), as well as many other great conductors; and it was Furtwängler who Giulini refused to judge. Not as a musician, but as a man — a man in the middle — between the Nazi state that ruled his homeland and his conscience.

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Furtwängler remains a controversial figure to this day for choosing to stay in Germany during the Third Reich (1933-1945). His celebrity would have guaranteed him important positions throughout the world. But, while evidence indicates that he did assist some Jewish musicians in the Nazi bullseye, he also allowed himself to be used as a propaganda tool by the government. Never having joined the Nazi party, he was seen as vaguely disloyal by some within Germany, but just another morally compromised German by some outside of it.

Giulini had his own set of moral dilemmas. Although drafted into the Italian Army that was allied with Germany, he and his two brothers, Steno and Alberto, made a pact not to kill:

We would not serve as Mussolini’s (the Italian dictator’s) agent to take anyone’s life, even if it cost us our own. (As a second lieutenant) when my men were fired upon, I had to appear to respond, so I would draw my pistol and fire high above their heads. One of my brothers (Steno) was in Russia with the Italian ski troops. His situation was horrible, with cold and snow and the constant attacks of the Russians, but he never loaded his rifle.

Even this stance proved inadequate to the circumstances that Giulini faced. In Yugoslavia, the Italian Army was confronted with partisan attacks and began to engage in revenge missions against innocent civilians. Before long, after the Allied invasion of Italy, Italy formally switched sides in the war — but not Giulini’s unit, which was ordered to stand with the Nazis in defense of Rome against the advancing U.S. Fifth Army. Giulini defected.

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It was late 1943 and Giulini now found himself a wanted man, his postered name and face to be seen with the direction to “shoot on sight.” For the next nine months Giulini, two comrades, and a Jewish family hid in a tunnel below his uncle’s house in Rome. Newly married, his wife Marcella and Italian resistance fighters provided supplies. It was Marcella who gave him the library copies of orchestral scores that he studied by candlelight and that they hoped he might eventually conduct if he survived.

On June 5, 1944 the Allies succeeded in liberating Rome. Thomas Saler, the author of Serving Genius: Carlo Maria Giulini, whose book is the source of much of the wartime background presented here, describes the scene:

After word reached him that the city had been liberated, Giulini climbed out of his underground hideaway and stepped outside. It was the first time in nine months that he saw the light of day and breathed the fresh air. Overcome with emotion, he walked to a nearby tree and kissed it.

Giulini was owed a four-year-old debt by Rome’s Santa Cecilia Orchestra as a result of having won the right to conduct it in a contest before war intervened. Thus, on July 16, 1944 he led his first ever concert — the concert that celebrated the liberation of Rome.

On March 18, 1978 I had the chance to interview the now legendary maestro. This elegant and charming man, polite and dignified, responded deftly to musical questions at the outset of our time together. That is, until I asked him about his opinion of Furtwängler’s decision to stay in Germany and the latter’s wartime behavior. He was not prepared for my question. I was not prepared for his response.

Giulini’s demeanor changed. While he was not impolite, I’d touched a nerve. He began by putting me in my place: “You are very young.” I was 31, he was 63. Giulini continued:

It is very, very difficult to judge the position of a man. It is difficult for you in American to understand the problems we had in Europe. It is difficult to put yourself in a position, in a special moment (in history) that is impossible to imagine if you didn’t live in that time. The last thing I should do is express my position on this point. I had my personal political position, I took my position — very precise. I was not a fascist, and at the moment I had to make a strong decision, and also a dangerous decision, I took it. But I am not in a position to do any criticism of another person.

The conversation continued, but it was clear that the subject of Wilhelm Furtwängler was closed. In that instant, I had seen the man who some called “the steel angel,” both because of his ever-present respect for people, including the musicians he conducted, and his backbone. He was every bit of both.

Giulini conducted his final concert with the CSO that evening. He would now be off to Los Angeles to take up the last major post of his career, as Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Unfortunately, his wife’s sudden and chronically debilitating illness a few years later ended Giulini’s American career in 1984. He returned to Europe, never again leaving his Milan home except for a few days at a time to guest conduct, so as not to be away from Marcella for extended periods. His formal career ended in 1998 and he died in 2005.

Giulini is said to have been a well-read man, but I don’t know if he knew the Stoic philosophers like Epictetus. It was the philosophy of Epictetus that U.S. Navy Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale credited with helping him survive while he was a prisoner in Hanoi during the Vietnam War. Over his seven-and-a-half years in enemy hands, Stockdale was tortured 15 times, in solitary confinement for over four years, and in leg irons for two. In other words, another man who, like Giulini, had every right to judge.

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In a 1995 lecture to the student body of the Marine Amphibious Warfare School, Stockdale quoted Epictetus:

Where do I look for the good and the evil? Within me, in that which is my own. But for that which is another’s never employ the words “good” or “evil,” or anything of the sort.

“Goods and evils can never be things others do to you, or for you,” Stockdale concluded.

Giulini would have understood.*

*For an entirely different perspective on Furtwängler’s wartime conduct, see this brief video interview of Jascha Horenstein, the great conductorial associate of Furtwängler: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NnXn9wwQeXQ

My gratitude to my friends Tom Saler and John Kain, the latter for alerting me to the existence of the Stockdale lecture. The photo of Vice Admiral Stockdale came from the U.S. Defense Visual Information Official Site, as downloaded to Wikimedia Commons by Darz Mol.

8 thoughts on “A Man Who Refused to Judge: Carlo Maria Giulini

  1. Thank you, sir, for this account of a truly brilliant man and musician. I was lucky enough to hear Giulini conduct a few times, most notably a performance of Mozart’s _Le nozze di Figaro_ with the Rome opera at the Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, in the late spring of 1968. This lovely performance is the more memorable to me by the presence in the cast of baritone Tito Gobbi in the role of the Count Almaviva. I also heard him conduct the LAPO (I think that was the orchestra) on tour in Austin, TX. There he conducted one of the iconic items in his late-period repertoire, Brahms’ Symphony no. 1. –Edward A. Cowan, Arlington TX
    ( ecowan@tx.rr.com )

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    • Giulini was one of those rare people who was both good and great. I’m delighted that you enjoyed the essay. Thanks for your comment.

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    • I knew Giulini professionally and, through experiences, admired him tremendously. He was as grand as the music he made with an orchestra. A really rare human being.

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      • Your impression appears to be almost universally held by those who had contact with him, as Thomas Saler’s biography reports. Thank you for commenting.

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  2. Giulini was right. We too shall be judged by those in the future who deem our conduct erroneous or insufficient. Furtwängler did help many and saved lives. How much can we demand of one human being ? I met Giulini in Boston in 1974 and spoke to him. A very generous and humane being, such as rarely exist anymore in our era. A wonderful musician. I also met and interviewed Mrs. Furtwängler about 20 years ago. She informed me that F. was exhausted at the end of his life and that he had taken much time and energy to help people.

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    • Furtwängler is such a fascinating figure. People interested in the subject of how musicians behaved during WWII seem to find it less complicated to deal with those who uniformly went along with the regime or those who were steadfast in opposing it. It appears that Furtwängler tried to occupy a middle-ground position — what one might call “no man’s land,” to use a WWI metaphor. Thanks for reading and for your thoughts on the subject.

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      • Michael Schaffer

        Futwängler did not try to occupy the middle ground. He was very vocal in his protest against the treatment of Jews and defamed artists from early on. He performed Mendelssohn and Hindemith as late as 1934, by which time it was abundantly clear that the Nazis weren’t kidding when they said Jewish, “modernist” and “degenerate” art were banned. He wrote an open letter to Goebbels, protesting against the treatment of Jews and stressing how integral Jewish culture and artists were to German culture in April of 1933, and an article defending Hindemith in November of 1934; both were published in newspapers and got Furtwängler into quite a bit of trouble. After he had published the latter article, he was forced to resign from his posts with the Staatsoper and Berliner Philharmonisches Orchester (many don’t realize that he was not officially their principal conductor between 1934-52).
        He must have realized no later than at that point that there was really little that he could do, even with his high status in German society, and being one of the most famous conductors in the world, he could easily have taken off and lived comfortably and safely elsewhere. But he didn’t. He continued to intercede on behalf of Jews as much as he could (prompting a high ranking official to angrily complain in a letter to Goebbels: “Can you name me a Jew on whose behalf Furtwängler has not intervened?”). He held on to his Jewish secretary and appeared with her at public functions until 1936, when he helped her to go to England and work for Beecham.

        Other prominent artists, such as Fritz Busch and Thomas Mann saw the light – or rather, the darkness – immediately and left. But that means they weren’t able to help anybody.

        Compared to the massive horrors inflicted by the regime on millions of people, what Furtwängler was able to do to help the persecuted was very little. But to those who he was able to help, what he did was everything.

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      • Well said, in Futwängler’s defense. It has also been mentioned by some of those who attended his wartime concerts, that his performances provided some relief from the horror. Yet he did return to concert giving after the resignation you describe and was used in Nazi propaganda. An impossible position: continuing as a part of the public German cultural life but trying to do what he could behind the scenes.

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